There’s no way the first Mariners playoff game in over two decades wasn’t going to be stressful, but as the Mariners leapt out to an early lead they never surrendered, this one was less stressful than it could have been. Here are the five major keys to the Mariners’ 4-0 win over the Blue Jays on Friday:
Take the crowd out early:
There was a ton of talk pregame about the advantage the Blue Jays would have with their home crowd at the Rogers Center, with the dome closed, and it was loud when Alek Manoah stepped on the mound in the top of the first. But the Mariners quickly quieted that crowd with one swing of Eugenio Suárez’s bat, and then took them out of it entirely with Cal Raleigh’s two-run blast. Castillo followed that up with a quick 1-2-3 inning, seizing control of the game’s momentum for the Mariners, a control they’d never relinquish.
Julio is the spark:
It took until the sixth inning for Julio to record a hit, but his presence at the top of the lineup unnerved Manoah enough that he missed his location twice, trying to pitch Julio in, and instead wound up granting a free baserunner to the Mariners each time who would later come around to score. When Julio is leading off innings and getting on base with his speed, it sets up the trio of hitters behind him—Haniger, Suárez, France—to be able to drive him in, whether by going big fly or just manufacturing a run with a clutch single.
The credit here mostly belongs to Luis Castillo, who demonstrated why the Mariners sacrificed such a large part of their farm to acquire him and invested in making him a Mariner for years to come, but Andrés Muñoz gets credit as well. Castillo threw over 70% of his pitches for strikes, working efficiently; he did blaze through them in the seventh, striking out the side, but the work he did with getting weak contact and ground ball outs was even more impressive. The powerful Blue Jays lineup only hit two balls off Castillo with a triple-digit exit velocity (Springer’s single in the third and Jansen’s flyout in the fifth); they had five balls hit less than 70 MPH. Castillo, in particular, battled HP umpire Lance Barrett’s nebulous strike zone, and continued to pound the edges of the zone until he was granted the same strike calls Manoah got from the outset. Castillo’s efficiency allowed the Mariners to deploy just Andrés Muñoz from the bullpen, and he was also efficient, throwing 17 of his 22 pitches for strikes to close out the game. The Mariners preach Dominate the Zone, and Castillo and Muñoz did that today.
Play clean defense:
This goes hand-in-hand with the above. The Mariners have been a little shaky with their defense down the stretch, but today, working on Toronto’s fast turf, every infield defender was crisp as hotel sheets. Eugenio Suárez made a great play on a slow-rolling ball in the second to wipe out the Blue Jay’s first base runner of the game, starting a double play that would keep the Blue Jays from scoring when Matt Chapman floated a little pop up into shallow left field. Even when they weren’t able to make outs on fielded balls, the defenders kept the Blue Jays from taking extra bases: Haniger made a nice play in the third cutting off a Springer single and holding him at first, and in that same inning J.P. Crawford smartly smothered an infield single from Bichette and didn’t attempt to make a low-percentage chance throw, keeping the runner from taking an additional 90 feet (and possibly another 90 with an off-target throw). Adam Frazier made a similar play at second in the fifth inning, stopping a single from Springer and not allowing Merrifield, who had hit a lazy fly ball single, to advance to third. Keeping those runners from taking extra bases allowed Castillo to go right after the final hitter of the inning, who he retired each time—Vlad in the third with an easy flyout, and Bichette in the fifth with a routine groundout.
Stay in your approach:
If you didn’t know, you’d have never guessed it was the Mariners who were making their first-ever post-season appearance in over two decades. The Mariners hitters stuck to their plan, waiting out a shaky Manoah, driving up his pitch count and hanging runs against him early. Cal Raleigh’s at-bat in the first that resulted in a home run was probably the clearest example of this, as he battled Manoah into a full count before getting a meaty two-seamer he was able to punish over the wall. There’s definitely improvements to be made—both Cal and Julio proved themselves susceptible to Manoah’s slider, with Julio chasing after it three times in one at-bat—but both young hitters also demonstrated their patience at the plate at times. Also, Jarred Kelenic doesn’t have a hit or walk in his column, but his first at-bat was a frustrating one where he showed good plate discipline and was not rewarded, getting punched out by home plate umpire Lance Barrett on a pitch well outside the zone.